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How My Hometown Became the Epicenter of India’s Religious Politics

Hindu nationalists rose to electoral significance from the debris of the mosque they demolished in 1992.

NEW DELHI — Ayodhya is a small, placid temple town in northern India, considered holy by Buddhists, Jains and Muslims, and believed by most Hindus to be the birthplace of Ram, one of Hinduism’s most revered deities and the protagonist of the epic poem the Ramayana. My family comes from a nearby village. Though my parents lived in Kolkata, we spent our summer and winter vacations in Ayodhya.

In the evenings we would walk through the streets of the town, which brimmed with pilgrims of almost every faith. Hindus frequented shrines of local Muslim saints; Muslims sold Hindu religious artifacts outside temples and revered Ram as a prophet. An unattended young girl, I ran around, bought knickknacks, ate sweets sold as offerings to the gods and swam in the Sarayu River — which we hold to be as sacred as Ram, our family deity — that flows by the town. In Ayodhya, I was at home.

Away from my childish concerns, Ayodhya was caught up in a decades-old bitter legal battle for the ownership of a patch of land, 67.7 acres long, where a medieval mosque stood alongside small temples dedicated to Ram and his consort, Sita. For residents of Ayodhya, Ram was omnipresent, but some Hindu activists claimed that Ram was born within this contested area.

In the late 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party, then a minor Hindu nationalist party, ran a campaign to build a grand temple for Ram in Ayodhya, contending that a temple to Ram had existed on the disputed site until it was razed in the 16th century and replaced by Babri Masjid, a mosque built by India’s first Mogul emperor.

In the summer of 1990, when I was 8, buses full of young men wearing saffron headbands began arriving in Ayodhya. They would come to our village, ask for donations and raise the slogan: “Mandir Wahin Banayenge! We Will Build the Temple Right There!”

The stores in Ayodhya started selling stickers with this ubiquitous slogan and audiocassettes of vitriolic speeches calling for a temple to be built where the mosque stood. I bought some colorful stickers and offered sugar cane sticks from our fields to the sloganeering young men.

Originally published on The New York Times.

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